LMA International Program Recap: “Leading Remote Teams in a Time of Crisis”

By Tara Marshall, legal marketing and business development professional

Leading virtual and remote teams has become a way of life in many industries, but remote working is not yet the norm in most law firms. Enter the COVID-19 crisis and nearly, if not all, workers have become remote workers on very short notice, and their leaders have had no time to prepare for the transition. While many people have experience managing teams that are distributed among offices, they may not have the experience to lead their teams through this kind of sudden change.

Leadership is hard enough as it is, but layering on the responsibility to help people cope with these changes and maintain productivity amid global uncertainties, makes the challenge even more daunting.

During this session, industry leaders David Ackert, president of Ackert, Inc.; David Bruns, director of client service at Farella Braun + Martel; and Megan McKeon, director of business development at Clark Hill, shared insight and guidance around how to separate what has changed from your old work life from what hasn’t and how to re-tool for the current realities.

Which types of leadership traits help managers excel from afar and manage through rapid change?

Ackert led the conversation with what became the theme of the presentation – adaptability. This applies to communication styles, empathy, team building, project management and technology. Managers need to be willing to take part in new types of conversations, and show a level of empathy and vulnerability that may not have been present in our office settings. Under extenuating circumstances, being of service to your team shows exceptional leadership. Ackert shared that he has become a more open-minded manager about certain things, such as remote working, than he had been in the past, noting that his team has really impressed him with how they’ve been able to innovate new ways to pivot and be stronger service providers.

In addition to adaptability, another management skill that’s imperative during this time of crisis is a willingness to share where they are emotionally and mentally, they create an environment that gives team members permission to do the same. Leaders must also go a step further and initiate empathetic discussions by doing regular personal check-ins with team members.

Bruns shared a powerful anecdote to illustrate this point – he recently discovered that a valued team member had not left her apartment for a week. The isolation, lack of vitamin D and fear of going outside was deeply impacting her ability to perform her work or even truly function. He ended up encouraging her to go home to her family in another city. The change exponentially changed her personal outlook and professional outcomes, resulting in re-engagement with the overall team. Without engaging in regular check-ins with his team members, Bruns would not have become aware of the situation and the challenges that his team member was experiencing. It’s important to still create opportunities for managers to ensure that everyone has a lifeline and can still participate in the team experience.

How are you incorporating time management as part of your overall management duties?

According to Ackert and Bruns, communication has taken on a more instantaneous quality, meanwhile time has begun to lose its meaning as a measure of our lives. On one hand, you can no longer walk down the hall to move a project forward or have a two-minute meeting in the elevator. Now, legal marketers seem to be on back-to-back 30-minute or hour-long Zoom video calls, spending more time discussing the work and less time getting actual work done. On the other hand, time has become really undefined as a construct. Clear boundaries between home and work are blurring – no more getting into the car at 5 p.m.

Ackert said that with limited options for engaging recreationally outside of the home due to the pandemic, and Netflix binges losing their appeal, people are leaning more into work. It has become very easy to work through the weekend, as work now becomes “something to do.” As a result, he cautioned, boundary management has now become an essential factor of time management, with bringing greater intention around planning our days. It is important to continue engaging in the same morning routine – getting up, showering, dressing, having your morning coffee and so on. Perhaps use the time you previously spent commuting to the office to create a more detailed plan for your day or take time to check in with your team members.

How are you incorporating communication and information processing into your management style within this remote working space?

Managers must remain mindful of everyone’s different communication and information processing styles. Assessing and checking in are necessary parts of this process. How people manage stress will impact their communication and information processing. This situation is now changing people's work styles as well. Whereas they may have worked 9-5 previously, now that many people have to educate their children at home, or care for ailing parents without additional support due to social distancing rules. So, people have been forced to adjust, and perhaps instead begin working at 5 a.m. and incorporate multiple breaks during the day. It’s important for managers to remain flexible and help their teams navigate these changes.

How do you deal with the unknown and environmental distractions?

McKeon advised to recognize uncomfortable situations and create a conversation around it. However, if you are giving a presentation, establish boundaries with your home team, she added. Setting up parameters that work for everyone to create as much harmony as possible under the circumstances.

How are you creating a safe environment for your teams as a manager?

These are unprecedented times, both internally at our firms and externally around the world. Ackert referenced the research of Molly Smith, head of client success at Ackert, Inc. There’s a direct correlation between positive anticipation and dopamine – people experience good feelings when thinking about something exciting to look forward to. However, with stay-in-place orders due to the pandemic, all of that came to a screeching halt. There isn’t a lot to look forward to except the pandemic ending – whenever that will be.

Ackert concluded that a lack of anticipation has led to increased feelings of hopelessness. There is long-standing medical research around the benefits of hope – it buffers stress and adversity, elevates optimism, and increases our ability to persist through adverse conditions. Now that so many people have lost their sense of hope, we fall back on work, he said.

He pointed out another shift that has occurred within teams is people are a lot more open to talking about what’s happening at home. Initially it was the fun pet jumping on our laps during a team meeting or a small child photobombing. Now, people are peeling back the curtain a bit more, joking around about drinking more and indicating other symptoms of developing unhealthy coping mechanisms. Teams are faced with a more emotional landscape as they interact with each other. People are dealing with more stress, and leaders need to make space for team members to talk about that. Otherwise, people don’t really have a release valve, which will affect morale and productivity.

The old adage, be the change you wish to see applies here to leadership. Vulnerability sparks connection and honesty, which will grow and strengthen a team over time – a balance to approach with self-awareness and forgiveness.

How do you set boundaries with attorneys in this remote environment during a crisis?

The panelists agreed that open communication regarding deadlines, expectations and deliverables must occur at the outset of a new project. Additionally, legal marketers must hold themselves to the same boundaries to which they hold their attorneys, McKeon added. If clear expectations are set, exceptions must not be made.

That said, it is important to understand the pressures people are facing right now with furloughs and layoffs spreading throughout the industry. People are less likely to set necessary boundaries with attorneys who may be deciding the fate of their jobs. There’s a balance that must be struck. It is important to recognize who gives the mission critical directives at a firm and prioritize their needs. Legal marketers face the ongoing challenge of lawyers not fully understanding the business impact of their work, said Ackert. When setting boundaries, smartly demonstrate the value your team brings to sustaining and growing the business during these challenging times.

How do you address productivity loss during this critical time?

Ackert noted that check-ins are a critical part of this process. Be clear and intentional with all of your communications, so that when you discover something going awry, you have already established a rapport enabling you to have that sensitive personal conversation. It also helps to understand the personality types of your team members and manage them in a way that helps them be productive in this environment.

While there are many personality typing tools and strength assessments, understanding the difference between extroverts and introverts can be a helpful first step. The introverts on many teams are thriving, while the extroverts are really struggling. For those without families at home, the isolation can be very draining for an extrovert who otherwise gets energized by in-person interactions. Recognize that your extroverts may be a little less productive as a result. Additionally, hosting virtual team happy hours and other team check-ins to discuss things outside of work can provide a way for extroverts on your team to connect and be refueled.

Ackert shared a process engaging the power of acknowledgement framework, where managers can give someone positive reinforcement when they’ve knocked it out of the park, rather than leading with criticism. In the instance where you have to give critical feedback, he suggested using the following process:

Step 1: State the facts about the situation
Step 2: Share how it makes you feel, i.e. concern (use “I” statements)
Step 3: Let the person speak to the issue
Step 4: State clearly the requested adjustment
Step 5: Confirm their commitment to a new direction

If that doesn’t work, simply state the fact of the situation and express disappointment. Disappointment will usually shift behavior in the work environment.

If the person did make the requested adjustment, follow up with positive feedback:

Step 1: State the facts about the situation
Step 2: Acknowledge the effort that was taken to change behavior
Step 3: Share the positive impact that it had on the team/business
Step 4: Share how it makes you feel

What technologies have you found helpful?

Within this context, McKeon shared how text-based communication has become a key strategy for her to manage not only her own time, but to ensure that her team stays on track. Project management solutions, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, have proven to be effective in streamlining team members engaging in tasks across locations with competing priorities at home. Slack was highlighted as a particularly efficient solution for resource sharing, allowing for communication and documents to be sent directly in real-time without cluttering everyone’s inbox.

Other cost-effective platforms that are essential for project management in a remote working context are Asana for project tracking, and PowerBI as a reporting tool at the end of a project. By utilizing these tools, you can track all projects and requests that are reportable to leadership – pitches, events, sponsorship, attorney coaching meetings, RFP responses, and so on.

An important thing to note is that even in booming times, these are critical pieces of infrastructure that should be in place. A dashboard or reporting system is essential for tracking team members’ contributions. This is especially true when now, more than ever, it is imperative to show a marketing department’s value and role in weathering this pandemic.


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